A few years ago, I was a workshop presenter at a popular women’s conference. The other presenters and I had gathered to pray at the beginning of the conference. We’d exchanged greetings, participated in a cute little ice breaker, and had a wonderful time of prayer. I was the only woman of color, but this wasn’t new for me. I’ve become accustomed to occupying spaces like these.
During one of the general sessions, there was a panel discussion about women in ministry. I wasn’t a panelist and didn’t particularly care to be because I was exhausted from the breakout session I led. I’d just completed a workshop on racial reconciliation among clergywomen, and it was ninety minutes of really deep, honest, and rewarding dialogue. On the heels of that session, all I wanted to do was spectate. However, a moment occurred that shook me from my stupor. During the question and answer session, a petite, unassuming woman of color asked a question.
She said, “I have been coming to this conference for five years now. I really appreciate the ways that you address coping with some of the systemic issues of patriarchy in the church, but here’s one thing I need to know: When will we as women model full inclusion in our leadership conversations?”
The facilitator of the panel turned to the panelists. The reaction was a little comical. There was silence, and then a puzzled contemplation. Finally, one of the panelists spoke. She had attended my session, and I was eager to hear what she would say. Her response was this, “I know there are some doctrinal differences with sexual orientation and gender roles; however, I believe we’ve gotten better about embracing our sisters regardless of theological differences.” I sighed because I knew that was not what this woman was talking about. To her credit, the woman clarified, “No, I mean diverse racial and ethnic voices.” At this point, I felt like the spotlight shined on me as most eyes in the audience turned my way.
To my utter dismay, the facilitator looked my way, smiled, and then dismissively said, “Oh, I think we are past that.” She then proceeded to go on to the next question. I glanced at the lady who asked the question, and she was walking out of the auditorium. I got up from my seat and followed her out. To my further dismay, I couldn’t find her. She had vanished. I was so irritated by the entire thing that I didn’t go back inside. A feeling of utter despair rose up in me, and in that moment I felt as if the last fifteen years I’d spent teaching on racial reconciliation in primarily white spaces had been an absolute waste of time.
Ruth and Naomi
The story of Naomi and Ruth serves as a fitting framework for our discussion because it showcases a remarkable relationship that was forged in spite of differences (see Ruth 1). I can imagine that Naomi could empathize with my utter despair in that moment at the conference panel. A famine had driven Naomi and her family to the land of one of Israel’s most despised enemies. While living in this land, Naomi’s two sons each married Moabite women, her husband died, and then her two sons subsequently died. She was living in a hostile land with foreigners as her daughters-in-law. So, eventually, Naomi set out for home with her daughters-in-law. On their way back to Israel, she gave both of her sons’ widows a choice: they could stay with Naomi, or they could return home to their families.
Ruth was determined to follow Naomi. It would have been perfectly logical and infinitely easier for her to return to her family and her people. But Ruth chose the more difficult path. She chose to leave her comfort zone and pursue relationship with Naomi. Choosing to pursue relationship in spite of discomfort will always be the harder path. Ruth says, “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16, NIV). At that moment, she became grafted into the community of God. Naomi and Ruth transcend the bonds of in-laws and become sisters in the Lord.
Growing up in the Black church, we used the title “sister” to address fellow ladies. Sister Betty, Sister Mona, Sister Deborah, and so on—this honorific applies to every adult female. It started as a way to uplift and encourage one another in a world that sought to oppress and discourage us Monday through Saturday. One day a week, we dressed in our best attire, donned our biggest hats, and addressed one another with titles. However, we didn’t always treat one another like sisters.
The same could be said about the way that woman above was treated at that conference. Can you imagine the courage it must have taken for her to get up to that microphone and ask that question? She was surrounded by women who looked nothing like her. In fact, in the sea of about seven hundred women there may have been about thirty women of color present. Out of twenty speakers at the conference, including breakout session speakers, there was only one woman of color (me). Sisters, numbers don’t lie. If this is getting “past all that,”. . . well, there are no words.
Here’s my point. If we want to move toward modeling full inclusion—not just theological, but racial and ethnic—we have to listen to one another. All of us know how it feels to be dismissed in a room full of men. However, some of us know what it feels like to be repeatedly dismissed in a room full of women who are supposed to be our sisters. This post is not meant to vilify the facilitator of that conference. I want to educate and bring awareness to an ongoing problem. Sisters of color all around the globe often feel dismissed, placated, and tokenized by our fellow Caucasian sisters.
This is why it’s easier to stay in our own ethnic circles, attend our own conferences, and build our own ministries—all with people who look like us. Pursuing racially integrated ministry relationships is hard work. But, I believe if we follow Ruth’s lead, we can begin to build bridges. Ruth provides a great example of someone who was willing to reach across societal boundaries, historical conflict, and ethnic divides to embrace relationship.
I personally have two biological sisters, and when I think of sisters, here are a few characteristics that come to mind that I think we should emulate with our spiritual sisters:
1. Sisters listen.
I can’t tell you how many late-night sessions I’ve had with my sisters. At the expense of sleep, I’ve listened to them pour out their hearts. Sometimes I’ve had to bite my tongue to listen without judgment. But I want my sisters to know that I will always be there as a sounding board and safe space. None of us would outright dismiss our biological sisters when they come to us with a concern, so why do we do it to our spiritual sisters?
2. Sisters have each other’s back.
When someone or something attacks one of my sisters, I come to her defense. I do not allow my sisters to fight by themselves. Whether it is a financial, emotional, or spiritual fight, my sister knows that all she has to do is call and I’m on it.
3. If one sister hurts, all sisters hurt.
I am so close with my sisters that when something causes them pain, it causes me pain. I can’t rest until I try and minimize or eradicate the pain. I can’t stand to see my sisters in pain. I want to soothe, heal, or alleviate the pain. I don’t see my sister wounded and immediately begin showing my own wounds. No, I try and stop the bleeding first. There is a time and place for everything. The time for you to share your own story of pain is not when I’m trying to get you to acknowledge that I’m bleeding all over the floor.
4. Sisters see the real you and love you anyway.
I’ve shared openly and honestly with my sisters. They know my secrets and I know their secrets. We’ve been vulnerable with one another, and our relationship is built on trust and authenticity.
Sisters, if we are serious about loving our neighbors as ourselves, we’ve got to begin with each other. It’s time-out for the superficial “churchy” love that we’ve been demonstrating for years. Ruth-like love demands that we intentionally seek to know and understand one another. In the movie Gone with the Wind, Scarlet O’Hara loved Mammy. Yet this love didn’t seek Mammy’s higher good. Authentic love for neighbor should include equity, reciprocity, and authenticity. This is what we are all asking of our brothers in Christ; my fellow sisters, we have to begin with each other.
More from Michelle D. Williams:
Why We Can't Forget the Women Leaders of Azusa Street
Help! Our Babies Are Dying